The City As Socioecological Process

Within the last couple of decades, theorization about human/environment relations has made substantial progress. In particular, a perspective that attempts to transcend the dualist nature/culture logic and the moral codes inscribed therein has replaced this crude binary ruling of city versus the environment. Critical to this progress has been the realization that the split between humanity and environment that first became prominent during the seventeenth century (Gold 1984) has long impeded understanding of environmental issues. Along these lines Swyngedouw (1999:445) suggests that "[c]ontemporary scholars increasingly recognize that natural or ecological conditions and processes do not operate separately from social processes, and that the actually existing socionatural conditions are always the result of intricate transformations of pre-existing configurations that are themselves inherently natural and social". This had of course already been recognized by Marx more than 150 years ago, and only recently regained the attention it deserves, from Marxists and non-Marxists alike (Pulido 1996; Whatmore 2002; see Swyngedouw, this volume). While the notion that all kinds of environments are socially produced is not new, the idea still holds much promise for exploration, discussion and illustration. In his landmark book, Smith (1984: xiv) suggests:

What jars us so much about this idea of the production of nature is that it defies the conventional, sacrosanct separation of nature and society, and it does so with such abandon and without shame. We are used to conceiving of nature as external to society, pristine and pre-human, or else a grand universal in which human beings are but small and simple cogs. But.. .our concepts have not caught up with our reality. It is capitalism which ardently defies the inherited separation of nature and society, and with pride rather than shame.

Despite often being neglected by urban studies, "environmental" issues have always been central to urban change and urban politics. Throughout the nineteenth century, visionaries of all sorts lamented the "unsustainable" character of early modern cities and proposed solutions and plans that would remedy the socio-environmental dystopias that characterized much of urban life. Friedrich Engels (1987 [1845]) had already noted in the mid-nineteenth century how the depressing sanitary and ecological conditions of England's great cities are related to the class character of industrial urbanization. Much later, Raymond Williams pointed out in The Country and the City (Williams 1985 [1973]) that the transformation of nature and the social relations inscribed therein are inextricably connected to the process of urbanization. Indeed, the urbanization process is predicated upon a particular set of socio-spatial relations that produce "an ecological transformation, which requires the reproduction of those relations in order to sustain it" (Harvey 1996:94). The production of the city through socio-environmental changes results in the continuous production of new urban "natures", of new urban social and physical environmental conditions (Cronon 1991). All of these processes occur in the realms of power in which social actors strive to defend and create their own environments in a context of class, ethnic, racialized and/or gender conflicts and power struggles (Davis 1996).

The relationship between cities and nature has long been a point of contention for both environmentally minded social theorists and socially minded environmental theorists. Urbanization has long been discussed as a process whereby one kind of environment, namely the "natural" environment, is traded in for, or rather taken over by, a much more crude and unsavoury "built" environment. Bookchin (1979:26) makes this point by suggesting that "[t]he modern city represents a regressive encroachment of the synthetic on the natural, of the inorganic (concrete, metals, and glass) on the organic, or crude, elemental stimuli on variegated wide-ranging ones". The city is here posited as the antithesis of nature, the organic is pitted against the artificial, and, in the process, a normative ideal is inscribed in the moral order of nature.

Although many view the notion of urban environmental landscapes as an oxymoron, Jacobs (1992 [1961] :443) long ago already suggested that urban environments "are as natural as colonies of prairie dogs or the beds of oysters". David Harvey substantiates his claim that there is nothing intrinsically unnatural about New York City by suggesting that human activity cannot be viewed as external to ecosystem function (Harvey 1996:186). "It is inconsistent", Harvey (1996:187) continues, "to hold that everything in the world relates to everything else, as ecologists tend to, and then decide that the built environment and the urban structures that go into it are somehow outside of both theoretical and practical consideration. The effect has been to evade integrating understandings of the urbanizing process into environmental-ecological analysis." The conclusion then that there is nothing unnatural about produced environments like cities, dammed rivers, or irrigated fields comes out of the realization that produced environments are specific historical results of socio-environmental processes. This scenario can be summed up by simply stating that cities are built out of natural resources, through socially mediated natural processes.

Lefebvre's take on the notion of "second nature" provides an often-neglected platform from which to discuss the social production of urban environments. Regarding the social production of urban environments, Lefebvre (1976:15) suggests:

Nature, destroyed as such, has already had to be reconstructed at another level, the level of "second nature" i.e. the town and the urban. The town, anti-nature or non-nature and yet second nature, heralds the future world, the world of the generalized urban. Nature, as the sum of particularities which are external to each other and dispersed in space, dies. It gives way to produced space, to the urban. The urban, defined as assemblies and encounters, is therefore the simultaneity (or centrality) of all that exists socially.

While perhaps relinquishing some of the inherent "natural" qualities of cities, e.g. water, vegetation, air etc., Lefebvre's explanation of second nature defines urban environments as necessarily socially produced and thus paves the way to understand the complex mix of political, economic and social processes that shape and reshape urban landscapes. In addition, for Lefebvre (as well as for Harvey or Merrifield (2002)), the urban constitutes the pivotal embodiment of capitalist or "modern" social relations, and, by implication, of the wider (and often global) socio-ecological relations through which modern life is produced, materially and culturally.

While landscape architects like Olmstead and Howard are often credited with "creating" urban natural landscapes, the metabolization of urban nature has a history as long as urbanization itself (Olmstead 1895). To this end, Gandy (2002:2) suggests that "[n]ature has a social and cultural history that has enriched countless dimensions of the urban experience. The design, use, and meaning of urban space involve the transformation of nature into a new synthesis." Still, understanding the politicized and uneven nature of this urban synthesis should be the main task.

In capitalist cities, "nature" takes primarily the social form of commodities. Whether we consider a glass of water, an orange, or the steel and concrete embedded in buildings, they are all constituted through the social mobilization of metabolic processes under capitalist and market-driven social relations. This commodity relation veils and hides the multiple socio-ecological processes of domination/ subordination and exploitation/repression that feed the capitalist urbanization process and turn the city into a metabolic socio-environmental process that stretches from the immediate environment to the remotest corners of the globe. Indeed, the apparently self-evident commodification of nature that fundamentally underpins a market-based society not only obscures the social relations of power inscribed therein, but also permits imagining a disconnection of the perpetual flows of metabolized, transformed and commodified nature from its inevitable foundation, i.e. the transformation of nature (Katz 1998). In sum, the environment of the city (both social and physical) is the result of a historical-geographical process of the urbanization of nature (Swyngedouw and Kaika 2000).

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